The "right to repair" fight heats up

(AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

There’s potentially something good happening in Colorado this month. (How often do we get to say that sentence these days?) Governor Jared Polis is expected to sign a bill into law being described as a “right to repair” bill. The measure would force manufacturers to provide customers manuals, parts, and specialized tools allowing those who wish to do so the ability to repair the equipment they purchase. It’s being advertised as a bill primarily intended to help farmers, but it could really be of benefit to almost any consumer. But it’s true that it is of particular interest to people working in agriculture. (HuffPo)

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Colorado is set to become the first state to ensure farmers can fix their own machines with the governor’s expected signing of a “right to repair” law Tuesday, which forces manufacturers to provide their customers with the necessary manuals, tools, parts and software.

Colorado, a state partly blanketed in ranches and farmland, took the lead on the issue following a nationwide outcry from farmers that manufacturers prevent them from fixing their own machines — from behemoth combines to thin tractors — when they break down.

This bill is being described as a primarily Democratic measure, which is unfortunate. (The bill did have a Republican cosponsor, however.) Why wouldn’t you want to give people the ability to repair their own equipment if they have the skill and desire to do so? Modern machinery of all sorts is growing increasingly complicated and without access to manuals, schematics, diagnostic software and unique tools, it’s nearly impossible for consumers to repair things that they once took for granted.

This is particularly true of cars. I grew up with a father who worked part-time as a mechanic and I helped out. Back in the sixties and seventies, with a little on-the-job training, a teenager could do extensive repair work on a car. Today’s vehicles are so computerized and specialized that the layperson has little chance of doing any maintenance much more complicated than changing the oil. Manufacturers do make those resources available to garages for professional mechanics, but most of us won’t generally be able to access them.

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One of my pet peeves in this discussion has long been the issue of window-mounted air conditioners. In case you’ve never noticed, those AC units don’t come with a valve allowing you to refill the coolant in them. That’s done by design. The manufacturers want you to be forced to throw them out every few years so you have to buy a new one. But a mechanic can replenish the coolant in your car’s air conditioning system without an issue.

Again, it would be great if this wasn’t seen as a partisan issue. The only people opposed to these “right to repair” bills are the manufacturers. In the case of farm equipment, they claim it’s because farmers might “illegally crank up the horsepower and bypass emissions controls — putting operator safety and the environment at risk.” That is, of course, a bunch of malarkey as the President would say. Farmers already have the ability to do some limited “tampering” of that kind if they really want to, though it’s illegal. The manufacturers are only interested in the profits to be had from the repair parts and services. If you’re a politician, whose side do you want to come down on? That of working-class American farmers, car owners and other consumers or the manufacturers’ lobbyists?

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